Between your tax return and your tax rebate, say you've got $1,000 to spend these days, and you want to do something green. Something that will cut your energy costs.
In these days of rising prices on energy, food and just about everything else, who wouldn't want to save some money?
So say you've got that $1,000. What should you spend it on?
"People ask me all the time: What can I do now, today?" said Drew Smith, a certifier for the Florida Green Building Coalition whose Sarasota business, Two Trails, promotes sustainable building. He offers clients a list of suggestions, "and next month, when the power bill is $20 or $50 less, they say, 'Whoa, I made a difference.' "
Progress Energy recommends that before you buy anything, have your utility company do a free home energy check to assess your systems, analyze your energy use, and suggest where you can improve, said John Sears, who works in the utility's Lake Mary office.
"One of the biggest hits we have," Sears said, is faulty air-conditioning ductwork — it leaks, or the sections have come apart (and a family of possums is enjoying the air conditioning under your home, at your expense).
It may cost only $50 for mastic and tape to reseal the ductwork, or as much as $3,000 if you have to replace the whole system. Progress Energy will contribute $150 toward repairs.
Another immediate energy saver is replacing incandescent lightbulbs with compact fluorescents.
"You don't have to spend $500 to do the whole house," Smith said, but as each incandescent burns out, install a compact fluorescent.
Insulating your home, or adding more insulation, is another quick fix. Code minimum these days is R-19; the maximum is
R-30 (beyond that you'll see no particular benefit in this climate).
A utility energy auditor can estimate the R-value of what you have now and suggest how much you need to add. Cost: typically, a few hundred dollars.
Don't forget about the old basics: weatherstripping and caulking. Seal the gaps around windows and doors so you aren't air-conditioning the great outdoors. Add foam gaskets behind electrical plates on outside walls. Cost: maybe $25 or $30 at the home center for a few tubes of caulk, coils of weatherstripping or packs of foam gaskets.
Unless you're getting a refund that's a whole lot bigger than $1,000, you're probably not going to throw out all your existing appliances in favor of more efficient new ones. And that's probably the right attitude, Sears said. "If it's not broke, don't fix it."
Refrigerators have a typical life span of 11 years; washers, 10 to 13 years; dryers, 15 years; and ranges, 20 years.
"We don't ever recommend you get rid of a machine that's working perfectly well," Smith said. "It's not the best investment to get rid of something that's working. I'd spend the money on other things first."
That said, anything more than 10 years old is a lot less energy-efficient than a more modern appliance. Case in point: A 21-cubic-foot top-freezer refrigerator, built between 1980 and 1989, is estimated to cost $175 a year to operate. A similar refrigerator built last year, Energy Star-certified, costs $46 a year to operate. See how your refrigerator and other appliances compare at www.energystar.gov.
So if your appliances are starting to fade, or you're looking at a big repair bill for an ailing appliance, it's time to start shopping. Those that carry the Energy Star designation are certified to use 20 to 30 percent less energy than the industry standard.
Front-loading washers use less water than top-loaders, and some dishwashers use as little as 4 to 7 gallons.
If you insist on keeping that energy hog of an old refrigerator, put it in the garage but don't plug it in until you really need it: to hold food for a party or holiday, or just before a big game to chill the beer.
A thousand dollars won't buy you a whole houseful of windows, but you can replace a couple of them with new windows with double-paned low-E glass. That stands for low-emissivity, meaning it keeps the heat out in summer and the cold out in winter.
Or add a window film or solar screening that cuts heat, glare and UV rays and lightens the load on your air-conditioning system.
The life span of your heating and cooling system is about 15 years. A complete replacement will cost $4,000 to $5,000, Progress Energy's Sears estimated.
Install a programmable thermostat ($85 to $125) so you're not heating or cooling the house to the max when no one's home. That can generate savings of $100 to $300 a year. Set that thermostat at 78 degrees in summer, 68 degrees in winter.
Smith suggests replacing old toilets that use 3.5 gallons per flush with low-flow toilets that use only 1.6 gallons (they're now required by code). You can find a basic model at a home center for less than $100, or spend several hundred dollars for a designer model. Or invest in a dual-flush model (these start around $269) that uses only 0.8 gallon for liquid waste, 1.6 gallons for solid.
If you haven't yet installed a low-flow showerhead that uses only 2.5 gallons per minute, you can find these at home centers starting around $25.
"I'd look at energy and water costs first because that's where you'll recognize savings immediately," Smith suggested. "Do the lightbulbs and the plumbing issues, then work on the others."
Judy Stark can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8446.